Not the best way to teach English

Summary: A look at the way English is taught in Pakistan.

In most Pakistani schools the so-called 'grammar-translation' method is used to teach English. Grammar translation is a way of studying a language that approaches the language first through detailed analysis of its rules of grammar, followed by application of this knowledge to task of translating English sentences and text into Urdu and from Urdu into English. Great value is placed on the reading of English and its writing/copying but no attention is given to speaking the language or to listening it being spoken by a fluent speaker.

Grammar is taught deductively through presentation and study of its rules which are later practiced through Urdu-to-English and English-to-Urdu translations or via fill in the blanks exercises. As a result, students learn all the grammatical rules of the language but not the language.

Most of our language teachers believe that the fundamental purpose of learning English is to be able to read English literature, rewrite some exercises from the textbooks and fill some blank spaces in exam papers. Fictional language is considered superior to spoken language.

Their only goal of teaching English is to enable students to translate Urdu into English and vice versa. Furthermore, as the students are required to write an essay, application, letter and story in their annual examination, they are dictated specific stories like 'Thirsty crow', 'Greedy dog' and 'Union is strength' by their teachers.

They are also given notes on essay topics that come again and again in the exams like 'A morning walk', 'My best teacher' (sic), 'The postman' or on how to write a letter to one's uncle thanking him for a gift. The students usually memorize these notes so as to reproduce them perfectly in an exam.

The ability to communicate in English is not the teaching aim in the case of the vast majority of our English teachers in government schools. In order to explain to students the meaning and use of a new word, teachers new words in single sentences. While they do this, there is no active use of English in class, the result being that students get no opportunity to practice their speaking or to learn the phonetics of the language. As a result many of our students cannot pronounce even very simple English words.

Grammar is usually taught deductively through repetitions and drills. Such activities are boring and do not even necessarily teach grammar. The grammar is distributed in different topics like tenses, active and passive voice, direct and indirect speech, subject-verb agreement and so on. These topics dishearten and confuse students because more often than not they cannot apply these rules in their routine verbal communication.

Grammar is the part of the natural form of language and it should be taught inductively. This inductive teaching of grammar should try and involve students in a way that requires them to think and not just provide mechanical responses.

It is a very common practice in our public schools that a teacher or a student read a paragraph from the textbook and then the teacher translates it word by word into Urdu. In the end one are two students re-read the paragraph with the Urdu translation. Some teachers write the difficult words along with the Urdu translation on the black board and students copy it in their notebooks. One wonders what this achieves.

Most linguists are of the opinion that a second language can be taught without translation it into the learner's native tongue provided the teacher explains the meaning to the learner through demonstration and action. A language could best be taught and learnt by using it actively in the classroom rather than using analytical procedures that focus on grammatical rules. So teachers need to encourage direct and spontaneous use of English in classroom.

This is where the importance of speaking English and listening to others speak it comes in. Unfortunately, this is something our government teachers completely ignore, perhaps partially because most of them are not able to speak the language fluently themselves. Only the teacher is the source of knowledge and students are passive followers of the teacher and the text. Spoken language is more important than written words especially when a new language is being taught.

One way to do this would be for the teacher to create situations in the classroom where students are encouraged to express their ideas and opinions on a particular topic in the language that is being learnt.

Writing, too, is an important aspect of learning English. There is a very close relationship between writing and thinking. The students in our schools usually write for the teacher or an examiner. But not much thinking goes into their writing, which isn't really their fault all that much because that is the way they have been taught.

They copy from a textbook or the blackboard into their copy and submit it to the teacher. This practice of copying limits them to the ideas of the others and they never try to write formulate and write down their own original ideas. Besides, teachers also make the mistake of asking students questions that mostly require a one-sentence answer.

Clearly, not much thinking or analysis goes into putting down on paper such an answer, and no wonder such questions test memory rather than any thinking or analytical skills on the part of the student. Just as in speaking a new languages, students being taught English have to be given opportunities to write their own ideas and opinions in the language.

They should be given time to write freely on any topic of their liking to develop some kind of fluency. Topics from textbooks can be used but teachers can always organize a class activity and base the speaking and writing exercises around that activity.

Usually, in our government schools a teacher and the textbook he or she uses take centre-stage in the language learning process with a student's role being passive and mostly peripheral. Learning a new language is quite a natural thing for many people, especially when they are young and the teacher should keep this in mind when conducting a lesson.

This means that students who are being taught English should be asked to play a more active role in the lesson. For example, instead of a teacher using a new word in a sentence and then students copying it down in their notebooks, it would be much better if each individual student is given a chance to use the new word in a sentence of his or her making. Pictures, illustrations and even actual objects can and should be used in the teaching of the language, especially because they allow students to relate to what is being taught.

Perhaps most importantly, English should be the exclusive language of the classroom and there should be no need by a teacher to use the native language of the students to translate the meanings of English words. Communicative interactions encourage students to negotiate meanings of new words and facilitate the building of cooperative relationship among them.

According to linguists, accuracy in a language comes from being fluent and those teaching methods that stress accuracy first actually hinder a learner from achieving fluency. Students need to be encouraged to speak as much as possible in English. Fun, novelty and positive reinforcement are very important stimuli to motivate learners to take interest in such language learning.

Teachers should understand that like any language, English has to be taught as a whole language. The four language skills - listening, speaking, reading and writing - should be taught all together as an integrated whole. Furthermore, a link between classroom activities and students' real life language can facilitate the learners' in becoming fluent in the language.

There is no one right way to teach English but a degree of sensitivity to the needs of the learners and flexibility is required to accommodate different interests, different social backgrounds personalities and learning needs of the students.

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